Toxic Brew: Relativism and Globalism

by Reed Fawell III

For the past six years, I have warned about the damage that unrestrained and hyper-competitive academic research is inflicting on the quality of higher education in the United States. The tenor of my complaints has grown more strident over the years.

Initially, these complaints were jump-started by a May, 2011, memo from University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan to then-Rector Helen Dragas. Sullivan proposed, in my view, to dramatically dilute the education and teaching of undergraduate students at UVa. in favor of radical increases in faculty research, most particularly in STEM research.

UVa.’s ambition, I felt, was unduly driven by several powerful and damaging trends ongoing in higher education. One was UVa.’s compulsion to climb the rankings of US News & World Report’s “Best Colleges” reports, whose standards and formulas demanded ever higher expenditures on non-teaching activities, be they for luxury student accommodations and cuisine food courts or feeding the expanding needs of highly paid tenured research faculty.

A related contributor, in my view, was the Obama administration’s ambition, announced in 2011, to dramatically increase federal funding of academic STEM research. Rather than making American students more competitive internationally in the STEM fields, the STEM emphasis has fueled hyper competition among institutions and faculties chasing federal grants and favors.

Likely, too, this same impulse powered the rise of the “Strategic (Research) Investment Fund” that abruptly appeared in public at UVa for the first time five years later to most everyone’s surprise (although it was hinted at three or four years earlier for legal reasons). However covert, UVa leadership deemed the fund necessary because university research almost always costs more than it generates in revenue. In the business model of today’s research-driven university, universities often divert student tuition and teaching resources to the research of tenured professors.

Not only do students wind up paying higher tuition and get less attention from senior faculty, professors often requisition their personal time and talents for research projects. In effect, students become low-age apprentices whose exploitation helps faculty rake in massive research contracts, profit from patents, and even launch business enterprises based on new technology.

I was worried six years ago that these practices would undermine UVa’s stature as a nationally recognized institution that specialized in teaching undergraduate arts and sciences that armed students to think independently and confidently, whether they are training in politics, philosophy, entrepreneurship, the classics, history, mathematics or physics.

My concerns grew as I observed various pieces of the plan fall into place. More recently, I have become fully convinced that the emphasis on university R&D and STEM research has infected all tiers of higher learning. The siren call of STEM is drawing colleges and universities from their primary and critical mission to empower students to become independent, well rounded, and effective agents of change.

Instead, over these past six years, I concluded that higher education has undermined the ability of students to stand on their own two feet. As early as the mid-1980s, William Bennett, then Head of the National Council of the Arts and Humanities, predicted the demise of the humanities at our elite national universities. He foretold the infection and destruction of traditional courses in the liberal arts and humanities (history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and literature, particularly western literature and the classics) with post-modernist relativism, deconstruction, and critical culture theory. His fears have come to pass.

Academic leftists have weaponized this poison in the form of political correctness, safe spaces, claims of micro-aggression, and politics grounded in race and gender to drive an endlessly growing list of grievances and create a new identity-based hierarchy on the college campus. Much of this ideology has played out in Charlottesville with the UVa administration’s witting connivance, especially in the furtherance of the “epidemic of rape” canard.

Remarkably, efforts to undermine American culture and society went largely unopposed for decades. Leftists have succeeded in hollowing out the center of our culture, and its confidence, and its coherence, and its ability to function. Now it is spreading chaos everywhere. Our institutions of higher learning have, to a marked degree, abandoned not only their roots but their sponsors, their fund-payers, their students, and in some cases the very buildings and spaces they inhabit in their quest for greener fields worldwide.

This they call “Globalism,” which works in tandem with the explosion of research at elite universities to widen the fields of academic research to most everything, and every potential client, under the sun, while ignoring much of America’s past, and its historic culture. Witness Teresa Sullivan’s grand pilgrimage to China, a quest to set up a branch, or perhaps a second main campus, for Mr. Jefferson’s University snuggled up close to the Forbidden City in Peking.

But higher education’s ill-fated embrace of Globalism now runs the risk of leaving the newly constructed university curriculum stranded on shifting sands.   The tides are already running out. Newly constructed departments of global arts and sciences are encountering strong counter currents of resistance here and aboard.

Students in other nations, who take great pride in their own histories and cultures, are not always receptive to listening to American professors talk about their institutions. The globalist agenda of American professors is perceived as another form of Western imperialism.

At home, the problem is different.  American students increasingly feel left behind. They feel cheated out of their right to learn about their own history, people and culture, before being taught or told to venture out into another peoples’ culture. Indeed, American and European academics increasing agree with their students. Hence globalist courses and departments are contracting, not growing, at a time when the movement has just started.

In short, American’s elite research universities must shift their grand globalist ambitions and research driven plans. Federal research funds are shrinking. Teaching is disappearing.  Science itself is under threat. And Americans now want their children educated to live and thrive in the real world, not one invented by other people.

Reed Fawell III, a retired attorney and real estate developer, is an alumnus of the University of Virginia.

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7 responses to “Toxic Brew: Relativism and Globalism

  1. If I were foolish, I’d ask why issues like this are not covered in the MSM. But the number of reporters who could play in the BR league are few and far between. The discussion is way too deep for most. Could also be the Government-Media Complex. Or both.

  2. Geeze.. there are over 2000 colleges and Universities in the US. It’s hard to believe that people who don’t want what UVA and their ilk are supposedly selling that they’d not have other choices.

    Hells Bells.. if you don’t like what UVA is doing – go to Liberty or some other provider who will give you what you want!

    This tome is a lot like geezers complaining that GM don’t make cars like they used to!


  3. Working for a company that recruits direct college graduates I think there is much to what Reed says. Twenty five years ago I’d bypass the Ivies because the new graduates thought too highly of themselves and weren’t worth the extra premium I had to pay to hire them. So, I got the employees I wanted from the tier 1 public schools – Michigan, UVA, Penn State, etc. Over the last 5 – 10 years I’ve noticed that the kids from what are perceived as tier 2 public schools are working out better than the kids from the tier 1 public schools. On average, the relatively recent Maryland grads are out-performing the UVA grads, Virginia Tech over Michigan and (with the right majors) I see good results from Clemson, Tennessee, Georgia, etc. With some notable exceptions the research-heavy schools are producing graduates that aren’t worth the premium they want in their starting salaries. I suspect more and more people will start to see this trend over the next 5 years.

  4. DJ – you actually are confirming what I said and that was that it’s not like people don’t have choices where to go to get whatever kind of education they want.

    It’s not like all schools are monolithically the same and all of them have gone to one style of education.

    Perhaps many HAVE gone from liberal arts to STEM but there are many more that have not and you cite them – Clemson, Tennessee, Georgia,etc.

    I do not denigrate the VALUE of Liberal Arts – they DO generally produce a more well rounded individual who typically looks at issues in a different (and sometimes better way) than the STEM dweebs… HOWEVER – and I bet you will agree – you have to have MORE than that to get into technology-intensive businesses… like software.

    My own experience in software led to an understanding that people who design and code User interfaces – need BOTH skillsets.. they need to see how many will actually use the software – AND they need to know how to actually implement the software – these days – across many , many platforms in an increasingly more complex ecosystem. I don’t think you can get there alone with just Liberal Arts but STEM alone without an appreciation of how software fits into the real world is a fail also.

    I think higher ed is trying to respond to this – Virtually every professional discipline in today’s world requires two things. Content knowledge – and then how that content is served up and processed. A doctor has the knowledge but can he successfully process it on a computer system?

  5. I find this blog post perplexing ( speaking as a Hoo parent and a regular contributor to a political talk show at WTJU, UVA’s college radio station).

    First, STEM has been a buzzword for years. Just about everyone regards it as a panacea for America’s woes in competing for global economic dominance with the Chinese and others. Bacon’s Rebellion has been a loyal cheerleader for increased STEM instruction for years.

    Secondly, I think you have the Sullivan-Dragas fracas all mixed up. I seem to recall that it was Dragas that wanted STEM and she wanted it taught on a much vaster online course system (Hey, if it works for Liberty University …)
    I seem to recall that it was Sullivan who did not enthusiastically buy into the STEM/online fads.

    Thirdly, I actually agree with you that UVA should not abandon teaching literature, arts, psychology, and so on. After all, isn’t Sullivan a sociologist?

    Lastly, it’s kind of stupid to conflate the STEM controversy with “academic liberals.” If anything, the lefties would probably want arts not so much sciences. The constant whine about the left taking over colleges is an annoying and constant refrain on this blog.

    What apparently happened was that the left did make significant strides with the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Many contributors to this blog came of age during this period (I did and even went to Woodstock).

    I gather back then UVA was a very different place — almost all male, coats and ties, super conservative, drunk every weekend, road trips to UMW and Sweet Briar. At least that’s how my cousin describes it. He graduated from UVA in 1966, four years before they let women in class. Hmmmm. Is that where you want to go back to? When everything was nice and comfy?

  6. The only way I know how to assess the impacts on education (its teaching by professors) by the rush by elite universities into a mission driven by STEM research, and how those impacts have damage higher education generally, and UVa in particular, is too look at the written record.

    That means that for one to understand what has happened and what is going on now, it is necessary to read what leaders like Teresa Sullivan said they would do years ago, and what in fact they have done since that time, starting in 2011.

    In this regard, many written statements by UVa. officials have been posted, and can be found, on this website over the years starting in 2011. You can dial into the moniker “Education (higher ed.) and scroll down from there.

    I suggest that using shorthand one can clearly understand the problem by focusing on three groups of documents that clearly fame its history and consequences. These include:

    1/ The initial ambition to create the STEM driven University was clearly expressed in the May 2011 memo from Teresa Sullivan to Rector Dragas, although the great expansion and control the university administrators was greatly underplayed in this document for political reasons.

    2/ One can clearly and unambiguously see how her ambition came to fruition by reviewing the shift in job openings published on line by UVa since 2011. This review shows plainly a revolution of massive proportions, just as President Sullivan predicted repeatedly as early as 2011. This also explains where the vast majority of money has been going, what departments are being choked off, and how teaching has declined dramatically.

    3/ Finally, see the recent articles “Science in Trouble” and “Academic Research in the 21st Century: Maintaining Scientific Integrity in a Climate of Perverse Incentives and Hypercompetition” that describe the current crisis in University driven research. The highlights of these highly informative papers are outlined in Jim’s post “The Crisis in Research Education” that is found on this website.

  7. Reed, I’m late to read and comment on this posting – but I can’t resist mentioning today’s WaPo article about a recent study from the Institute of International Education, whose head is quoted as saying he is “struck by two questions he often hears when he travels abroad: Does everybody in America have a gun? And does everybody in America pay full price for college? Those issues arise in media coverage of U.S. gun violence and of the U.S. education sector, which relies heavily on affluent international students for tuition revenue. Safety and value, Goodman believes, are increasing priorities for foreign students.”

    I take from this the lesson that higher education here may already be feeling financial effects from our nation’s insularity, indeed cultural arrogance, at the higher education level. As you put it, “The globalist agenda of American professors is perceived as another form of Western imperialism.” Let us hope the University of Virginia remains more open to a broad liberal arts education and more welcoming to foreigners than that.

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